Mangia! Mangia!

Luigi Velo

Photo By Larry Dalton

The Italian Importing Mercato at 5030 Folsom Boulevard is a lot like a grocery store. It is full of groceries. But there’s a big difference. Instead of being rushed through, you’re likely to end up in a conversation with someone enjoying a leisurely lunch. And instead of picking through the same old labels, you’re deciding whether to get the almond biscotti or the chocolate. If you’re there long, you’re going to hear a loud, clear voice with a certain commanding tone. That will be

Luigi Velo, who took over this part of the family business after studying political science at California State University, Sacramento; spending three years in the Peace Corps; and working as a flight supervisor for TWA. He’s seen the world, but the atmosphere created here is inspired by a childhood in Paderno del Grappa, in Northern Italy.

What’s your idea of Italian food?

Where I come from, I never heard of spaghetti and meatballs. Never heard of pizza, until I came to this country. It’s altogether different. In those days, if you were from a different region of Italy, the food was different. We didn’t do too much red sauce. A lot of butter, a lot of cream sauce. A lot of fresh pasta. A lot of rice. Risotto. Most of the risotto rice grown in Italy is grown up there. We didn’t see a lot of meat. We had chicken, stuff like that. Red meat was very scarce.

We ate a lot of chicken and fish. We were close to the sea. A typical dish in the winter was baccalao, codfish.

Do people live a long time over there?

They do. They don’t have a lot of the accommodations we do here, so they walk everywhere. You get up in the morning, you walk to school, you walk to the market to pick up your food for the day. People don’t particularly like refrigerated items. They want to buy them fresh, that morning. So, people walk a lot.

What was your life like as a youngster in Italy?

My mother used to ask us at 6 o’clock in the morning, “What do you want to have for dinner tonight?” I’d say, “Ma, it’s too early. I don’t want to think about that.”

But a good sauce takes a long time?

Right. That’s exactly the reason that she did that.

And the dining also takes a while?

We eat in Italy differently than we do over here. Over there, it’s a full meal, and you sit down and have all the courses. You start with the pasta, and in the wintertime you have soup of some kind, something hot, because it gets cold up there. And then the main course would be fish or chicken of some kind, with whatever vegetables are available from the garden, usually. Then you get to the salad at the end. It helps to digest everything.

Nobody was in a hurry. We’d sit down in the same place, not grab our food and rush off to eat in front of the TV. Of course, we didn’t have no TV.

So, you actually get to know your family?

The family unit means a lot to that culture. In Europe today, especially small little towns, families walk to the center of town after dinner and have a cup of coffee or whatever. They get together.

There are cities where people are getting back to that now, places with nice areas for walking in, like Seattle and Portland.

How do you cook an eggplant?

I like it simple. I like it grilled. Season with pepper and salt, to get the bitterness out. Simple and tender. Put some Parmesan cheese on it.

And what about grappa?

Grappa is a product of my part of the country, the area around Venice, in the north of Italy. It’s named after the mountains that surround the town, called Montegrappa. Mount Grappa.

It is a distilled leftover of the winemaking. Leftover stems and leftover skins and everything else. You distill that, and you get a 48-percent-plus spirit.

Like brandy?

It is a brandy. It’s like aquavit, the Danish version.

You have a good time around here, don’t you?

We’re Italian here. We don’t use the intercom system; we just yell. We’re Italian, and we enjoy cooking. We enjoy people. You gotta have fun where you’re going to work.

We try to keep it simple, like Mama used to cook, and leave it at that.

How long have you been around the Italian Importing Mercato?

We came over here in the ‘60s. My uncle had it going at that time. My father had a brother here who opened up Italian Importing in 1945. My brother and my father came before. They had a store over in Italy, so they did the same thing when we came over here. I was in high school, and I used to work with my uncle and my brother. And Mom used to cook in the kitchen. We brought the same kind of food we had in Italy to Sacramento. We’ve been making the same stuff since 1945.